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John Rosemond is America's most widely-read parenting authority! He is a best-selling author, columnist, speaker, and family psychologist.

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Children should pay attention to parents

By the time a child is 3 years old, he has come to one of two conclusions concerning his parents:

Conclusion One: It's my job to pay attention to my parents.

Conclusion Two: It's my parents' job to pay attention to me.

A: 3-year-old who reaches Conclusion One can be successfully disciplined. Furthermore, his discipline will be relatively easy. A child who reaches Conclusion Two can be neither successfully nor easily disciplined. This is so because the discipline of a child rests primarily on whether or not he is paying attention to his parents, and it is a fact that a child will not pay sufficient attention to parents who are acting like it is their job to pay as much attention as they can to him.

The child who reaches Conclusion Two has acquired, by age 3, an attention deficit. Not attention deficit disorder, mind you, because there's nothing at all wrong with him. Nonetheless, there will definitely be disorder in the house. His parents will say things like "he doesn't listen to us," "we have to yell to get his attention," and "we have to get right up in his face before he does what we're telling him to do." Yep, he has an attention deficit all right, but not one caused by a chemical imbalance or some malfunction in his brain. This attention deficit was caused by well-meaning parents who think good parents pay as much attention as they can to their kids; that the more attention one pays ones child, the better a parent one is. That is, after all, the prevailing belief, and it has prevailed since the late 1960s, when the newly emerging professional parenting class—people like me, with capital letters after their names—claimed that a child's psychological health was a function of how much positive attention he received from his parents.

For several years after graduate school, I was one of several psychologists who staffed a "hot-line" service parents could call to receive parenting advice from a real live "expert." The typical caller was a mother at the end of her rope about something. It was our job to first calm her down and then offer advice on how to solve the problem. It slowly dawned on me that every single person on staff was saying the same thing: The problem, whatever it was, was the child's way of communicating that he or she wasn't getting enough attention. The prescription, therefore, was also the same: The parents needed to find more ways to give the child positive attention, to "catch him being good."

I also began to realize that the same parents kept calling over and over and over again. They'd assure us they were following our instructions, but the problems just kept getting worse. So, not considering for a moment that we might not be giving good advice (unthinkable!), we'd say, "You're not being consistent enough" or "You're still giving negative attention, and the negative is canceling the positive" or something equally trendy and insipid.

I slowly came to the conclusion that too much attention creates as many problems as too little. I came to the further, admittedly radical, conclusion that past toddlerhood, children do not need much attention at all. They need supervision from parents who know where they are, what they're doing, and who they're with. Indeed, children need a certain amount of direct, one-on-one attention, but where the giving of attention to a child is concerned, one quickly reaches the point of diminishing returns. That's where Conclusion Two kicks in, and no medicine has yet been invented that will cure the ensuing disorder.

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